Af­ter up­set Iraq vote, U.S. to em­brace for­mer foe

The Republican Herald - - NATION / WORLD - BY JOSH LEDERMAN

WASH­ING­TON — Four­teen years af­ter Muq­tada al-Sadr’s mili­tias fought Amer­i­can troops, the United States is pre­par­ing to work hand in hand with the charis­matic Shi­ite cleric and his move­ment, hop­ing to find com­mon cause in cur­tail­ing Iran’s in­flu­ence in the wake of an up­set Iraqi elec­tion.

Like many Iraqis, Wash­ing­ton was caught off guard by the elec­tion, in which a coali­tion or­ga­nized by al-Sadr took the largest share of the par­lia­men­tary vote. Although al-Sadr, who didn’t run him­self, won’t be­come prime min­is­ter, his move­ment will have an out­size role in build­ing the next gov­ern­ment and de­ter­min­ing the course of Iraq’s fu­ture.

Can the U.S. re­ally set aside the past and em­brace a cleric whose Mahdi Army killed U.S. and Iraqi troops and was ac­cused of kid­nap­ping, tor­tur­ing and killing Sunni Iraqis? The ten­ta­tive an­swer is yes.

U.S. of­fi­cials in­volved in Iraq pol­icy said Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion was cau­tiously op­ti­mistic that al-Sadr, hav­ing evolved over the years into a pop­ulist, cor­rup­tion-fight­ing leader, could her­ald the for­ma­tion of a broad-based and in­clu­sive gov­ern­ment that tol­er­ates a con­tin­u­ing Amer­i­can pres­ence in the coun­try.

Al-Sadr has turned away from his pre­vi­ous align­ment with Iran. U.S. of­fi­cials be­lieve that will make it more dif­fi­cult for Tehran to in­stall an Iran-friendly gov­ern­ment in Bagh­dad. The of­fi­cials weren’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss Iraq’s elec­tion pub­licly and spoke to The As­so­ci­ated Press on con­di­tion of anonymity.

Zal­may Khalilzad, the for­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Iraq, said re­cent pub­lic mes­sages from al-Sadr bode pos­i­tively for U.S. in­ter­ests — such as fin­ish­ing off the Is­lamic State group, a com­mon en­emy of the U.S. and al-Sadr’s mili­tia. In ad­di­tion to vow­ing to re­spect Iraq’s con­sti­tu­tion, al-Sadr has em­pha­sized Iraqi sovereignty and the need for a bal­anced foreign pol­icy that lim­its Iran’s in­flu­ence, as well as his abil­ity to work with sec­u­lar­ists and lib­er­als such as Iraq’s com­mu­nist party.

“If he prac­tices what he says — if a for­mer ad­ver­sary em­braces your ob­jec­tives — one should re­spond to that, but be cau­tious until you see changes on the ground,” Khalilzad said. “If he’s will­ing to en­gage, we should be pre­pared to en­gage as well.”

Pub­licly, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has said lit­tle about the suc­cess of al-Sadr’s slate of can­di­dates, in part be­cause the vote count hasn’t been fi­nal­ized and a new coali­tion gov­ern­ment has yet to be formed.

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